Many are those who ponder whether or not there is any continuity between the Social Doctrine of the Church taught by Pope Francis and that taught up until Bendict XVI. Are Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti (but also the Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium) in line with Centesimus annus and Caritas in veritate? The propensity prevailing among commentators is to think there is continuity, because no one likes to have to note that what popes said yesteryear is now said in a different manner or even denied, and also because the “reform in continuity” criterion suggested by Benedict XVI in 2005 is often applied in a very broad sense. In this way it is argued that any possible elements of discontinuity pertain to the pastoral realm and not doctrine, and as such do not commit the pope’s Magisterial authority. This way of arguing, however, is none other than a loophole for sidestepping the issue, since the major doctrinal changes nowadays occur for pastoral purposes.
Even though the issue I am raising is so broad and would require much more space than that of a short article, I would like to briefly highlight some elements where there isn’t much continuity. These are elements of both substance and method.
The Social Doctrine of the Church is “the announcement of Christ in temporal realities” and “an instrument of evangelization”. These are both essential features, but in Pope Francis’ social documents they don’t seem to have the same space they had before. More so than to the announcement of Christ, space is now reserved to humanity, existential fraternity, the category of ‘people’, inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue, and collaboration with all.
Secondly, the approach pertains to the existential and historical order, and is not even a distant kin of the metaphysical order. Few and far between are any references to a natural order, to the essence of man, to the finalities inscribed in human nature, or even to the concepts of nature and super-nature. The emphasis has been placed more on walking together along the roads of life rather than on working within an order of what is real with a view to ordering it on the basis of just reason and true religion.
This historical more than nature-based approach then compels people to focus on what is new, on time, courage to change, taking risks, forging ahead, dreaming, hope in an existential sense, exploring new avenues, and launching unprecedented processes. This entails the emergence of rather adventurous proposals that at times fall outside both the context of the Social Doctrine of the Church, as well as the task of the Petrine Magisterium. They thereby come across as opinions expressed in public debate. What is changing is not only the pope’s social teaching, but also the pope’s role in social teaching.
This new existential and historical approach opens the way to getting into the meanderings of the human sciences and empirical readings of social phenomena, making blunders at times or embracing ideological positions with no critique at all. The risk comes down to being gripped by naturalism. The list of similar positions in Pope Francis’ encyclicals could be quite long. We could just recall two of them. The first is loading a social encyclical with highly debatable data about anthropic global warming, as was the case in Laudato si’. The second is a politically correct and very “government regulatory” reading of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Magisterial value of such observations amounts to zero. Moreover, this way of presenting things is not casual. It indicates a different approach to social issues that manifests discontinuity with the past and “fashions” pontifical social communication in an entirely new way. One of the ensuing effects is the impossibility of distinguishing what is essential from what is marginal.
As it is logical to expect on the basis of what has been said above, the language used also changes with Pope Francis. The words are new and are often ‘borrowed’ from newspapers or political commentators. He uses word-images which, conceptually uncertain in their own right, have a vaguely evocative value; for example, “wall” or “waste”. They are also ambiguous, as is the case with the word “people”, or words such as “populism” or “liberalism” used in chapter V of Fratelli tutti.
As I wrote at the outset, we are faced with far-ranging and very broad issues that call for much more in-depth work well beyond these few notes. In any case, three are the aspects that cannot be disregarded: the change is taking place; this change cannot be dismissed by using the criterion of “reform in continuity” in an approximate and libertarian manner; this change is neither casual nor accidental, but is linked to the new theological perspective that would like to take over in the Church at large.